All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go

Take steps ahead of time to ensure a successful Microsoft partnership on products that will succeed.

The phrase, "all dressed up and nowhere to go," might sometimes describe how partners feel when a vendor's products don't take off.

Given Microsoft's immense range of products, the company inevitably has both hits and misses. It often can seem daunting for partners to figure out which products will boost the bottom line. Right now, the Windows Vista business appears to be business as usual, rather than "Wow," and significant changes in Exchange will take some time to have an impact on the market. Of the major products launched recently, only SharePoint seems to be in a sweet spot.

A partner who relied on Microsoft's forecasts, however, might have expected and prepared for more. It could be that they trained staff on deploying Vista and Exchange, got new certifications, perhaps even hired additional help. No doubt, some of those partners who did so are hurting today.

A disconnect between what a vendor says and what actually happens should not surprise smart partners. Just as cheerleading may motivate fans and give the team a boost, Microsoft works to promote positive customer attitudes and interest, even if it can't predict the final score.

Is there any way to sort through the hype and figure out which initiatives are the truly market-changing ones?

Don't look for shortcuts here. Deep experience in a particular market niche can be helpful to make a well-educated guess as to which products will be winners. Here's how you can combine your experience with vendor information to get a leg up on a promising opportunity.

Get the whole story. Microsoft's pitch for new products typically avoids references to shortcomings in the product or competitive weaknesses. Any list of "new" features, for example, usually contains at least one old feature. Some features may have been available from competitors for a while. At this point, it's time to ask some questions. How developed is the marketplace for this product? Are there solid incumbents with developed sales channels in place? Do Microsoft products beat the competition on features, scalability and cost? Here you're trying to figure out what's real, and, if it's real, whether it's a game changer.

Watch for product traction inside Microsoft itself. Microsoft is one of the few companies that thinks nothing of pushing overlapping solutions into the market at the same time. Not all of these will be winners, so before you leap on any bandwagons, look around for duplicates. Which product has the most credibility? Which one is supported by Microsoft's developer tools, or is even interoperable with other Microsoft products? Any gaps here are yellow flags.

Trust yourself. Most successful partners have a lot of experience and their customers can provide some important guidance in assessing Microsoft's product positioning. Do your own analysis and come up with your own list of product features and benefits, based on what you've actually tested. What do your customers say about those features when you give them the list, sans vendor hype? What do you think? Would you buy the product? Under what circumstances? If you think this kind of research costs time and money, compare it to the time and money you can lose by training your staff on a product or trend that doesn't take off.

If your customers' reactions and your own analysis don't match the vendor hype, that's a strong indication that you should rely on your personal marketing research. Yes, Microsoft does a lot of market research, but that usually doesn't drive product development. In many cases, the marketing you see is simply the most creative story that the marketing folks could come up with, given what the product team generated.

This doesn't mean you should sit on the sidelines until something matches what you already do. You need to make bets to keep ahead of the market. The object is to bet smart by analyzing the technology, customer readiness and customer needs to make your training and experience pay off.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.